The lost art of passwords: What we lost when hackers conquered the Internet

These days we're adopting increasingly complex passwords to protect our information. Here's what we're giving up

Published August 9, 2014 9:30PM (EDT)

        (<a href=''>Andrey Armyagov</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(Andrey Armyagov via Shutterstock)

News this week that Russian hackers have stolen 1.2 billion passwords makes me want to throw up my hands in resignation and change all my passwords back to “password.”

A security expert quoted in the New York Times suggests that we might protect ourselves from this new level of hackery by creating an anagram from a sentence “using symbols and numbers to make it more complicated. For example, the sentence One time in class I ate some glue could become 1TiC!AsG.”

Someday, computer innovators tell us, passwords may be replaced by optical recognition or a system that can detect each person’s unique pattern of touch on the keyboard. Let’s hope that happens sooner rather than later, but in the meantime, I’m afraid, the bad guys have won. There is simply no way that we can keep in our heads the new and improved super-safe passwords that would provide immunity from identity thieves. The cognitive pathways by which people perceive, process, understand and remember words prevent us from being able to embrace such random strings of characters as “1TiC!AsG.”

In cartoons from the olden days, a character might spout an obscenity that would be censored andrendered as “$#!!&$#&.”  The “word” thus denoted was considered unspeakable in polite society, but now we are expected to use exactly such gibberish-chains to enable some of our most important communication. Little wonder that we might feel like shouting “$#!!&$#&.”

As a professional wordsmith (English professor and writer), it saddens me that these “words” we’re supposed to “pass” when we log onto our email and bank accounts even remotely share the same categorical denomination as the words that actually embody value for humanity: Words like “April is the cruelest month” or “The answer is blowin’ in the wind.”  Today’s passwords aren’t words. I demand a new term for them.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary – the archive of how words appear and evolve in English – “password” first surfaced in its current usage (“a sequence of characters, known only to authorized persons, which must be keyed in to gain access to a particular computer, network, file, function, etc.”) a half-century ago, at a 1965 meeting of the American Federation of Information Processing Societies.

But the idea of a password long predated the computer age: Its first recorded use, as “a selected word or phrase securing admission, recognition, etc., when used by those to whom it is disclosed,” dates to 1799.  Sir Walter Scott used the term – “George shall . . . force the fellow to give him the pass-word” – in a translation of Goethe’s 1773 play "Götz von Berlichingen."

(Götz, a 16th-century poet and knight, was famous for the iron prosthetic hand that replaced the appendage he lost when he was shot by a cannon, and also for the colorful phrase Goethe attributed to him when he was asked to surrender in battle: “Er kann mich im Arsche lecken!” Translation: “He can lick my arse!”)

Passwords appear throughout the 19th century: Francis Plowden’s 1811 "The History of Ireland" recounts how “The secret passages to the back of the throne were daily thronged by those, who had the pass word or private key.”  Historian Thomas BabingtonMacaulay writes in 1855 of a figure who “longed to be again the president of societies where none could enter without a pass-word.” Rolf Boldrewood’s 1891 novel "A Colonial Reformer" describes “that fresh, unspoiled, girlish heart to which he alone had the password.”

There have been some wonderfully colorful passwords, such as “Open Sesame,” from “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”; “Caput draconis,” from Harry Potter;  “Swordfish,” from the Marx Brothers’ "Horse Feathers." (“Hey, what's a matter, you no understand English? You can't come in here unless you say, ‘Swordfish.’ Now I'll give you one more guess.”) "Get Smart," the 1960s TV spy comedy, featured such memorable passwords and counterpasswords as “The geese fly high . . . The frost is on the grass.”

These “old-fashioned” passwords illustrate how language may cunningly facilitate access to someplace selective, someplace private. But the ever-growing scale of password piracy suggests that looking forward, we are doomed to wander haplessly through the babel of "$#!!&$#& and 1TiC!AsG."  Not only has our privacy been abrogated, but also our expectation that we can use coherent language, words that feel comfortable and familiar to us, to navigate the world around us.

Our generation has signed up for instantaneous universal communication, but the army of devious password infiltrators reminds us that our miraculously free-ranging cyber-conversations have a dark side: a slough of despond that dampens our innate linguistic enthusiasm by forcing us to pay homage, every time we want to log on, to the toilsome gobbledygook of password-ese.

Granted, this may ultimately seem like one of those trivial and overblown first-world problems. But I do think it’s worth worrying about, and maybe even trying to change, the fact that the gateways to our adventures in language are cloaked in increasingly impenetrable incoherence.

Randy Malamud is Regents’ Professor of English and chair of the department at Georgia State University.

By Randy Malamud

Randy Malamud, Regents’ Professor of English at Georgia State University, is the author of the forthcoming book "The Importance of Elsewhere: The Globalist Humanist Tourist."

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